The Water’s Edge, by Karin Fossum (Mysteries go global, part four)

November 11, 2009 at 9:41 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

edge In this novel, Karin Fossum has dared to portray not one but two child molesters as less than monstrous human beings.

In one scene, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his second in command, Jacob Skarre, interview Philip Akeson, a convicted sex offender. They are hoping he can assist them with  a case they are currently working on: “They remembered him as mild and agreeable, open and generous by nature, and they decided to pay him a visit.” At one point in the conversation, Skarre finds himself almost smiling: “…it was impossible not to be charmed by this short, gentle man.”

You may find this description disconcerting; I know I did – at least, initially. But this rather indulgent depiction of a pedophile is more than counterbalanced by revulsion and anger at the crimes themselves. In The Water’s Edge, the particular crime in question is the abduction, abuse, and murder of a little boy named Jonas August Lowe. Jonas and his mother were a family of two. Elfrid Lowe didn’t have much, but she had her son. Had him, that is, until this awful thing happpened.

Philip Akeson had nothing to do with the murder of Jonas. Fossum takes us deep into the mind of the actual perpetrator. It is an intensely uncomfortable place, where guilt, self-pity, bewilderment, and fear are freely mixed. And suffering too, although not enough – never enough –  to expiate his terrible crime.

Jacob Skarre and Konrad Sejer struggle to comprehend this mindset. For them, it is not enough to apprehend the wrongdoer. They feel a need to understand what triggers this evil impulse. Even more important to their investigation, they need to know how this corrupt individual is behaving in the aftermath of the crime. Here, Sejer speculates:

“‘No matter who he is…whether he’s got a record or not, he’s gone underground. He’s afraid to answer the telephone. He might wear different clothes, he might start to shop at a different supermarket. Whatever strength he’s got left, he’s using to build a defence for himself. He feels that the world is against him and he is most likely resentful.’

Sejer is on the right track, but it’s early days, and these observations are not, at this point, especially helpful. Sejer and Skarre must continue with their slow, agonizing search. At one point, Skarre bursts out: “‘How do people develop such a predilection?…I don’t understand it, it  goes against nature.” The search for an answer to that question becomes as excruciating – and as urgent –  as the search for the killer himself.

The other perplexing question concerns the victim: Why would an intelligent child, one repeatedly cautioned about the dangers of the outside world, accede to a stranger’s importuning?

“His mother’s warnings had been brushed aside, barely noticeable, like the trace of a feather across a cheek and Jonas had discarded his [walking] stick and got into a stranger’s car. People are unpredictable creatures, they invent rules which they break incessantly and they follow impulses which they later cannot explain.

Except, of course, that for Jonas August, there was no later.

There’s a certain determinism at work here. This sense of a sad inevitability is reinforced when another child is reported missing. Edwin Asalid is a sweet-natured boy whose life is blighted by compulsive eating. His mother Tulla is loving but distracted. While she hungers for her current lover, Edwin hungers for ice cream and any other treat he can get his hands on – the more, the  better. He is large, even obese. And he has utterly dropped out of sight.

Or has he?

I’m not sure that I have managed to convey the extraordinarily compelling nature of this narrative. Fossum’s series benefits greatly from its setting in a Norway that is both bleak and beautiful. In addition, she has created two of the more admirable policemen in contemporary crime fiction.

“Inspector Sejer was always correct, reserved, and polite. His formality might at times be mistaken for arrogance, unless you knew him well. Hardly anyone knew him well.

Jacob Skarre knows Sejer well. Skarre himself is a more direct, open personality. In one scene, he sits silently and listens to Elfrid Lowe as she talks about her murdered son. At this juncture, the case has been solved; the killer, apprehended. Nothing further in the way of information is needed from this bereaved mother. Nevertheless, she urgently needs to talk. And Jacob Skarre lets her, makes the time, gives her his full attention.

Elfrid Lowe concludes her sad litany thus:

“‘I’m not scared of dying. Jonas has done it, so I can do it too. I don’t know much about eternity, but perhaps it’s all right. I talk and talk and you listen with reverence. Perhaps you think I’ll be  fine eventually because I can put words to my feelings. But the reality is that silence terrifies me.’

Later, she takes the opportunity to thank Konrad Sejer for his work on her behalf and his kindness to her. His response is a model of grace: “Please forgive me for putting it this way, but it has been a privilege to know both you and Jonas August. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”


In his Rough Guide to Crime Fiction (2007), Barry Forshaw states the following: ” There is no room for debate: the most important female writer of foreign crime fiction at work today is the Norwegian Karin Fossum.”  I personally feel that  the word ‘female’ could be removed from that line without greatly altering its essential truth.


Karin Fossum


As I was  writing this, I found myself thinking of a musical selection entitled “The Last Spring,” by the great Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg:


  1. One book – just one! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum                                                                                                                  Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo *Judge Dee at Work by Robert van Gulik *Skeleton Hill by Peter Lovesey *A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie                                                                                           *Turning Point by Peter Turnbull *Piper on the Mountain by Ellis Peters                                                           *The Marx Sisters and All My Enemies by Barry Maitland The Suspect by L.R. Wright The Private Patient by P.D. James *Hit Parade and Hit and Run by Lawrence Block Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor About Face by Donna Leon The Accomplice by Elizabeth Ironside                                                                                     Chat and The Catch by Archer Mayor The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine August Heat by Andrea Camilleri                                                                            *The Skeleton in the Closet by M.C Beaton Ash Wednesday by Ralph McInerny Thunder Bay by William Kent Krueger *The Demon of Dakar by Kjell Eriksson Pix by Bill James […]

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    […] mix (India). Someone mentioned Karin Fossum, whose writing I especially love and whose latest novel, The Water’s Edge, was to my mind a small masterpiece. Finally I whipped out Judge Dee at Work. I continue to be […]

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    […] on the Mountain by Ellis Peters The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum Skeleton Hill by Peter Lovesey Pix by Bill James All My Enemies by Barry Maitland […]

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    […] Coffin Trail – Martin Edwards The Indian Bride,  Black Seconds, and Water’s Edge – Karin Fossum Half Broken Things and Puccini’s Ghosts – Morag Joss Monsieur Monde […]

  5. A Tale of Two Book Discussions; or, a ‘Dragon Tattoo’ immersion experience « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] considered adding Karin Fossum to the list but decided against doing so, as her novels tend to be more psychological and […]

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    […] was not crazy about it – too much angst involving the detective’s personal life. Now Karin Fossum – she is truly […]

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    […] plotting and eloquently spare prose style brought the American private eye tradition to its zenith; Karin Fossum, a Norwegian whose novels probe the universal pain and longing inherent in the human condition; […]

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